Park Rat Turned Paralympic Racer
A National Ability Center Success Story
Backcountry partners with the National Ability Center (NAC) around the shared mission of breaking down barriers between humans and nature. The NAC is a world-class organization that provides access to all kinds of outdoor activities for people with disabilities. Based in Park City, Utah, the NAC has been helping people get active outside since the 1980s.
To empower even more people to live a life closer to the outdoors, Backcountry features adaptive athletes in stories, serves as an outfitter of NAC athletes and guides, and co-hosts fundraisers, like the upcoming Stoke Series Live, to benefit the NAC.
We recently spoke to Santiago Vega, an adaptive athlete and integral member of the NAC community. From competing in the Paralympics to helping others achieve their goals, he shared his story of a lifelong relationship with the organization opening up the outdoors to everyone.
Every morning since he was two years old, Santiago Vega has attached an artificial leg to his body. For Santiago, this is just part of the A.M. routine, and certainly no reason to stop him from excelling at just about every sport he tries, from rock climbing and biking, to horseback riding and skiing twice in the Paralympics. He views his disability not as a roadblock or even a challenge, but as all the more reason to get after it outside.
Originally from Chile, Santiago was born with a rare congenital condition called fibular hemimelia, which caused his right leg to never fully develop. Affecting around one in every 40,000 births, the defect stopped his shin bone from growing, and also meant he was left without a functioning foot.
“I was lucky enough that my disability was part of my life growing up,” explains Santiago. “I’ve put on a shoe and a leg every morning since I was two years old, so I didn’t have a standard before. I’ve grown up with the mentality that I can try anything.”
And try anything he did. Thanks in large part to a relationship formed with the National Ability Center (NAC) in Utah when he was five years old, Santiago has lived a life of activity that encompasses more sports than most able-bodied athletes. But it was skiing that had the biggest impact on a young Santiago—just not in a way he could have ever imagined.
“I’d always wanted to compete in the Paralympics, but I was more of a park skier,” says Santiago. “I made fun of racers for their suits and twisty poles. So when I first skied with the NAC and their coach told me to try the race hill, I was like, ‘no let’s go to the park, or ski some trees.’ I showed up with short skis and a jacket down to my knees. I looked like a total park rat. But he still told me to go down the course.”
The course in question was CB’s at Park City, an Olympic-spec, water-injected giant slalom run that was rock-solid with ice—no place for a park skier. But Santiago isn’t one to back away from a challenge. He shot down the course without even getting an edge in and “barely made it,” as he remembers. By the time he reached the bottom, he was ready to ski it again.
The NAC ski coach, Ray Watkins, agreed. For a park rat’s first day in the gates, it turns out that Santiago had done pretty well. “I spent the rest of the camp with Ray and realized that racing might be it for me,” Santiago says.
After a return to Chile and a meeting with the country’s ski team, Santiago found himself on a fast-track program towards the upcoming Paralympic Games in Sochi. While he was too late to be fighting for podium positions on the world stage, he was told that with enough hard work, he could make it on the team based on merit, with no need for a wild card entry.
Santiago trained hard nearly every day of the week, and started racing everywhere he could—Winter Park, Copper Mountain, and back in his part-time home of Utah. By the following season, he’d gotten enough points to qualify for Sochi. “I was this scrawny 16-year-old kid in a Peter Pan suit with skis double my size,” Santiago recalls. “I had no idea what I was doing.”
Terrified and feeling out of his element, Santiago attended the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Russia as a member of the Chilean team. Fortunately, his NAC coach Ray was also there as part of the coaching team for the U.S. athletes, so was on hand to provide some much needed encouragement. “I was scared, but Ray said, ‘just do what we do in Park City. Don’t think it’s more than any normal training day.’ So that’s what I did. My goal was to not finish last, and I made the top 25. I was so stoked, and it was the beginning of my journey.”
Now 22 years old, Santiago has taken a break from international competition to focus on his studies at the University of Utah. He’s a pre med student aspiring to a career in health, and cites his relationship with the NAC as a big inspiration for his choices. And whenever he’s not in school, he finds himself at the NAC. “They can always use a hand,” he explains, “so I just show up and say, ‘where do you want me?’”
Santiago has also been pushing the bounds of another adaptive sport: rock climbing. As a passionate climber and mountaineer, Santiago hopes to establish Utah as a host state for adaptive climbing competitions—including the nationals—and wants to continue spreading the word about adaptive climbing.
Photo credit: Lindsay Daniels Photography
When it comes to truly empowering people to live a life closer to the outdoors, mentality goes a long way. And for Santiago, it’s your attitude more than your ability that can often prove the biggest roadblock. Because his disability played such a big role in his youth, Santiago feels lucky that he’s never really known any different. But for people who have suffered a traumatic injury or acquired a disability later in life, the challenge can be much larger.
“People often feel that they’re no longer as capable as they once were, or that they shouldn’t be able to do things they were able to do before their injury. The NAC is really good at showing them they’re completely wrong [laughs]. I meet people all the time who are more active now than when they were able bodied. They’re sit skiing and adaptive biking every weekend. Those people, after they make that switch, are some of the most driven people I know.”
Thanks to the NAC, people living with a disability have the opportunity to try almost any sport imaginable. And if it doesn’t work? They can try something else. “They’ll fail, they’ll struggle, but they’ll keep trying,” says Santiago. “You tweak things, and try to adapt the sport to you rather than adapting to the sport. And maybe, at the end of the day, you’ll do great at it and find something you love.”
“We have clinics every Saturday at The Front Climbing Club in Salt Lake City,” Santiago explains. “Some people have never climbed, some have climbed forever, and most don’t know that there’s competition climbing for people with disabilities.”
But every week more and more people show up to Santiago’s clinics. Of course, the support of organizations like the NAC is key. As far as Santiago is concerned, the NAC is family, and he speaks passionately about the difference the organization makes to people’s lives—including his own. Taking him soup when he’s sick, giving him rides to the airport, or simply knowing they’re there for him if he ever needs help. “Over the years, the people there have become close friends rather than co-workers or staff.”